St. Louis University
According to ancient mythology, King Minos built a perplexing labyrinth to house the Minotaur, a monstrous creature to which his wife had given birth. Each year, the myth states, seven girls and seven boys were chosen to enter the labyrinth as tributes to become food for the Minotaur.1 It was not until Theseus entered the labyrinth, and killed the Minotaur that it could be considered a place to leave your childhood behind. Once inside, they wrestled with their demons, experienced a rebirth, and finally, emerged as adults ready to take their places in society. The myth of the labyrinth can thus be understood as a rite of passage or a coming of age ritual in ancient Greece. It was this mythological labyrinth that Sir Arthur Evans believed he had discovered at the Palace of Knossos, located just a few miles from the city of Heraklion on the island of Crete.
Evans is typically credited with the unearthing of this vast palace, but he was not the first person to dig on this site, nor was he the first to find the citadel. A Cretan businessman named Minos Kalokairinos first discovered the palace in 1878. While digging in the area, Kalokairinos unearthed some walls of the palace complex, as well as some large pithoi (stone storage jars). The Ottoman Empire, which controlled the island at this time, forced Kalokairinos to stop and refused to grant him permission to excavate further.2 In 1894, with the help from the king of Greece, Evans began negotiating with the Turkish government for a portion of the island, and eventually, in 1899 the Turks granted him permission to purchase an area in Crete.3
Previously, Evans had travelled to Athens in 1893, with an interest in Mycenaean art. While exploring an antique dealer’s shop, he came across a few small engraved stones, which he thought were possibly from Egypt since they had hieroglyphic symbols on them. Curious as to what they were, Evans asked the dealer where he acquired them. The dealer explained they came from Crete. These findings sparked Evans’s interest, and in the spring of 1894, he set foot in Crete for the first time. He went there with the intent to find the meaning of the stones and discovered that they were milk stones , used as charms by Creteian mothers breastfeeding their newborns.4 After spending some time away, Sir Arthur Evans returned to the island in 1900 and continued his research. Evans, familiar with the myth of the Minotaur, hoped to find the labyrinth used to hold the creature. Almost immediately, he began discovering the ruins of a building sprawling over many acres, with twists and turns in every direction he looked. Proclaiming success, Evans claimed that he had unearthed the palace of King Minos and its labyrinth. Further, he came up with the idea to name the island’s ancient civilization the Minoans, after the legendary King Minos whom he believed had built the citadel.
The Palace of Knossos has two other names to which it is referred, the first being the House of the Double Axes. Evans gave the palace this name because he discovered double axes in many of the rooms, as well as axes carved into the walls of the citadel. There is a theory proposed by Alexander MacGillivray that the double axe symbolized “Zeus Labraunda”, who came from the region of Caria. The Carian word for axe is labrus, and he believes that it formed the Greek word for labyrinth meaning, “house of the axe”.5 However, there is some objection to Evans’ theory of linking the labyrinth to the double axe. W.H.D. Rouse does not believe this connection to be accurate and considers it a stretch of Evans’ imagination. Rouse explains the Minoans only worshiped a female divinity due to the many “snake goddesses” found throughout the palace complex.6 Granted, there are problems with assuming the Minoans only worshiped one deity; there is too much evidence proving the inhabitants of Crete did believe in and worshiped Zeus.
There is a cave on Mount Ida in Crete where Zeus’ grandmother Gaia (Earth) kept him safely hidden away from the wrath of his father, Cronos. Upon Zeus’ birth, Gaia whisked away the infant, leaving behind a rock swaddled in cloth to trick Cronos. To keep Cronos from hearing the cries of the infant Zeus, Gaia made the priests who inhabited the cave clash their weapons together and stomp loudly upon the ground.7 According to some legends, the cave on Mount Ida that Zeus inhabited inspired the Minoans to form a cult dedicated to Zeus. Some scholars have stated that the double axe is possibly a symbol representing the thunder-god, or the Minoan Zeus. According to this theory, Arthur Cotterell says, “it is almost positive that Zeus Labraundos was a Hellenized version of the Hittite weather-god, who carried a double axe in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other.”8 A vase discovered in Greece depicting Zeus giving birth to Athena shows Zeus holding what appears to be a double axe. The male attendant next to Zeus also holds a double axe. Professor Spyridon Marinatos was also excavating in the cave on Mount Ida and discovered a side chamber containing hundreds of sacrificial axes, though most were miniatures and not intended for actual use. Along with the axes, there also appeared to be an altar.9 The findings of the axes help to draw a connection between the clashing of the priest’s weapons in the myth to the sacrificial axes found in the cave by Marinatos. During other excavations in the cave, a bronze shield was discovered depicting the infant Zeus and his protectors, the priests. These artifacts prove that at least some of the inhabitants of the island were worshiping Zeus.
Double axes also have a ceremonial connotation and were used in the ritual sacrifice of bulls to the gods. Evans even went so far as to name one of the rooms at Knossos the Hall of the Double Axes, implying its ritualistic nature. This room “contained pottery, a steatite double axe, a plaster tripod offering table . . . and a terracotta figur [ine] . . . [These findings] led Evans to propose that the Shrine of the Double Axes . . . had been an important and much frequented sanctuary.”10 The discoveries in the Hall of the Double Axes show the importance of ritual sacrifice to the gods in ancient Greek society. Prayers and other rituals were performed with each sacrifice, to ensure the prosperity of the people.
The second name given to the Palace of Knossos was the House of the Labyrinth. When looking at the architectural plans of the palace, there appears to be no logical order to its arrangement. With no central axis, the rooms seem as if they were placed in random spots, making the navigation of the palace confusing. The maze-like design of the complex led Evans to think that the palace was the labyrinth. When examining the ground floor of the palace, Evans discovered a meander pattern decorating the floor. The pattern ran in only one direction, towards the middle of the complex. Cotterell mentions, “The labyrinth [and its] linear form is the meander, represent[ing] a difficult passage; it was confusing [and] hard to follow…but eventually, led back to the start.”11 At the center was an open courtyard where the ritual sport of bull-leaping most likely happened. Indeed, the myth explains that the battle of Theseus and the Minotaur took place in the center of the Labyrinth, making a connection to the central courtyard of Minos’ palace.
Many cultures throughout history use labyrinths and characteristically design them for inner enhancement and development, a path for one to experience. Across cultures, they all share the same meaning: spiritual growth, enlightenment, emergence, progress, and initiation. A labyrinth has only one entrance and one exit. As people move along the pathway, taking its many twists and turns, they are expected to clear their minds and reflect upon life. They enter the labyrinth with a particular question or goal in mind, and as they walk through, they are meant to contemplate their question. Once they reach the center, they are to have found the answer for which they were looking, so on the return trip they could emerge with a new understanding. By looking at the labyrinth in this way, one can see how it compares to the journey of life. Going through the labyrinth is like the trek every individual must take growing up.
The myth of the labyrinth began with Minos of Crete trying to become King. To secure the throne he made a deal with Poseidon and asked him if he would send a bull to show the Cretans that he was the rightful heir to the throne. Poseidon agreed under one condition: Minos must sacrifice the bull in honor of him. When Minos received the bull, however, he decided to keep it as a pet. This act of defiance angered Poseidon, and as revenge, he maddened the bull so that no one could approach it, and then, made Minos’ wife Pasiphaë fall in love with the animal. She asked the architect Daidalos to help her create a hollow cow, upholstered with cowhide, that she would be able to climb inside; that way she could get close enough to seduce the bull.12 She and the bull copulated, and nine months later, she gave birth to a half-bull/half-man creature called the Minotaur. This grotesque creature sickened Minos, but instead of killing the beast, he decided to imprison the monster. He too called on Daidalos, to construct a maze-like structure to house the Minotaur, and13 Daidalos built a labyrinth with many twists and turns that was impossible to escape.
Meanwhile, Minos’ son Androgos was in Athens participating in the Panathenean festival and was triumphant in all of the games. Upon hearing of his many victories, King Aigeus, ruler of Athens at the time, urged Androgos to battle the bull of Marathon. Unbeknownst to Androgos, it was the same bull that Minos had received from Poseidon, and during the fight, he was killed by his father’s pet. 14The death of his son angered Minos, and he decided to wage a war on King Aigeus. As a consequence, Aigeus was forced to pay tribute every year of seven girls and seven boys to become food for the Minotaur.15 Three years had passed when Theseus, the son of Aigeus, volunteered himself as one of the tributes. He did this with the intention of going to Crete to kill the Minotaur and stop the human sacrifices. At once, the tributes and Theseus set sail for the Island of Crete where they would face their destinies.
Upon Theseus’s arrival in Crete, Ariadnê, the daughter of Minos, fell in love with him and learned of his plan to kill the Minotaur. Knowing that Theseus would never find his way out of the labyrinth, she went to Daidalos and asked for help; he gave her a golden ball of yarn that would help to guide Theseus through the maze.16 Upon entering the labyrinth, he tied one end of the thread to the entrance and began his journey towards the center to find the Minotaur. Once they met, a great battle ensued. Theseus leaped over the creature many times hoping to tire him out enough to deliver the final blow to the beast’s heart.17 After killing the Minotaur, Theseus followed the string back to the entrance and emerged successfully in his quest. He, along with the other tributes and Ariadnê, snuck out of the city and set sail for Athens.
In a time when most people were not able to read or write, myths were the most efficient way to transmit knowledge. They taught people about morals, as well as things that were relevant to everyday life. Philippe Borgeaud states, “Several historians of Greek religion have drawn attention to the repetition of initiatory themes in the Theseus cycle as well as in certain rituals attached to it by tradition: abandonment in childhood, tests which end in the hero’s discovery of his own identity and victory over monsters.”18 Indeed, the Theseus myth shows the trials and tribulations of traveling through the labyrinth only to emerge as a hero. By defeating the Minotaur, Theseus was able to prove to his father that he was ready to ascend the throne. Borgeaud goes on to say that this specific test for Theseus “takes on a particular importance because it marks, in the career of the hero, his coming to the throne following the discovery and recognition of his identity.”19 This myth shows the struggles in life that one must overcome so as to grow and learn from what life throws at them.
The Minotaur in the center of the labyrinth represents the demons that Theseus must overcome or the questions for which he must find answers. Once he wrestled with his demons, he then retraced his steps and emerged with a new understanding of life. In his book Ritual: Psycho-Analytic Studies, Theodor Reik looked at the aboriginal peoples of Australia. In their culture, the youths are put through a test prior to their initiation into adult society. A monster, represented by a gluttonous creature who demands young people to satisfy its cravings, symbolically kills them.20 This Australian ritual is similar to what the tributes from Athens were subjected, a monstrous creature that had an appetite for children. So, in essence, the Minotaur represents the demons a person must overcome, to be admitted into society as an adult. The elders in the Australian society use a bullroarer to represent the voice of the creature; it produces a low methodical roar, which is meant to inspire fear in the children.21 According to psychoanalytical theory, when children feel threatened by anxiety or fear, the ego22 kicks in and enters into a struggle for survival in which the child brings out all the available methods of defense. The result, according to Anna Freud, is that the personality changes.23 The adolescent’s ego can acknowledge its new form of maturity, and the child accepts himself/herself as an adult.
The boys and girls who were tributes represent the moment in every child’s life when it is time for them to take the journey into adulthood. The ritual would most likely coincide with puberty—not physical puberty, which happens at different ages, but social puberty that marks an epoch of life in which every society accepts the children as new members in the adult society. Borgeaud believes the children are going off to take part in a “rite de passage.” They were separated from their families and forced into the labyrinth where they had to go through a symbolic rebirth; only then could they be reunited with their homeland and have the new status of adults.24 They traveled the path of the labyrinth, hoping to find the center where they could leave their childhood behind and come into a new phase of life ready to take on the world. According to Anna Freud, “adolescence is a phase that by its nature is an interruption of peaceful growth in which disharmony within the psychic structure is normal.”25 In the Theseus myth, the tributes must retrace their memories as they traverse the labyrinth; by doing this, they are reworking their psyche, readying it to be comparable to that of the adults in their community. Their egos now face the necessity of having to readjust themselves to be more in line with the new psyches that have emerged as a result of making the journey through the labyrinth.
Growing up in any culture, children pass through stages of life that mark milestones. Some cultures have elaborate rituals that go along with each milestone. In ancient Greece there was a large “youth culture,” for “half the population in fifth-century Greece was under fifteen.”26 The social status into which one was born determined the type of life one would likely have. The life of a wealthy aristocrat would differ significantly from the life of a slave. Girls and boys were raised the same until the age of seven; they would mainly stay at home with their mothers. After the age of seven, depending on social class, it was predetermined what happened next. Boys who were lucky enough started their education, ending their bond with their mothers and taking the first steps to becoming an adult. They would spend the day learning from their paidagogos (male tutors) until the age of eighteen when they would enter the military. The women in the community taught the girls how to be good wives. They learned the art of cooking and textile- making, as well as dancing. Other children would become apprentices or work in the fields with their fathers. Unfortunately, the child of a slave could only become a slave.27 Arnold Van Gennep notes in his book The Rites of Passage that childhood lasts until the ceremony of “entering school.” This initiation marks the beginning of adolescence and usually happens in cultures between the ages of eight and twelve.28 In ancient Greece, it happened sooner--usually at the age of seven, happening to coincide with the myth that every year, seven boys and seven girls were sent to Crete, to enter the labyrinth. They took that journey to the next phase of their lives, not knowing what to expect. When one enters a school, they begin to learn about many different topics; the questions in life become clearer, and in turn they change and grow as people. This process is similar to traversing the labyrinth: one enters with questions and emerges with answers and a new clarity.
The purpose of journeying into the labyrinth is to emerge a changed person with a new understanding and perception of life. The labyrinth represents the journey every person is forced to make. In life, one is required to make tough decisions; sometimes they lead to forks in the road, forcing one to choose whether to go left or right. They have to pick their path on blind faith, hoping they choose the right one. While they walk the pathway of the labyrinth, they are presented with obstacles arising from deep within themselves. By overcoming these problems as they arise, they are taught essential life lessons. The paths taken in life are similar to traveling through a labyrinth because no one knows where they will lead or if it is the right path. According to Alex Holder, “During adolescence our infantile identifications reflected in self-representations are subjected to scrutiny and change, while new identifications and valuations come into being.”29 Eventually, these new identifications will lead one to clarity and newfound conclusions about himself/herself, allowing him/her to grow and adapt.
In the myth, Minos stated he hated the Minotaur and wanted to keep it a secret that his wife had copulated with a bull and gave birth to such a monstrous creature. What is interesting is that Minos himself came from a human-bull union. His mother was Europa, the daughter of the king of Tyre.30 One day Europa was in a field with her maidens picking flowers. All the while, Zeus was watching her from afar, admiring her beauty. He came up with the idea to turn himself into a bull and seduce her. He appeared to her as a beautiful white bull, calm and gentle, in the middle of the field. As Europa approached the bull, he seized her and carried her across the sea to the island of Crete. He took her into the cave on Mount Ida where his grandmother had hidden him away from his father. They mated, and she gave birth to three sons, one of them being Minos.31 Zeus left, and Europa married the king of Crete, so Minos was in line for the throne. Since Minos is of a human and bull union and also sacrificed children to the Minotaur, he can be viewed as a monstrous creature as well. Moreover, it was a custom for Minos, to go to the cave on Mount Ida every nine years to meet with his father, Zeus. They would discuss the way Minos should run the government, as well as what laws he should enact.32 These meetings provide additional evidence as to why there were so many ritual objects found in this particular cave. Gaia concealed Zeus there, Zeus and Europa conceived Minos there and every nine years Minos would meet his father for a consultation.
Eventually, the pattern of the labyrinth began showing up in artwork and coinage of that time. The meander pattern began framing frescoes, and vases began showing up with the same wandering designs. Many coins were discovered on the Island of Crete often illustrating the famous legend of the island.33 Images of the labyrinth, as well as the Minotaur, were found on coins. These coins used the meander pattern to create a frame around the heads of gods, goddesses, or the rulers of Knossos. The first coin depicts a more rounded-style labyrinth on the obverse, and the reverse depicts a square design. The second coin shows the Minotaur on the obverse, and the reverse shows Theseus framed by the meander pattern.
Images of Theseus fighting the Minotaur began showing up on pottery throughout ancient Greece. A kylix (drinking cup) found in Greece depicts Theseus slaying the Minotaur, with Athena behind him offering support. Theseus is shown pulling the Minotaur by the horns from behind a vertical line decorated with the meander pattern. This line depicts the labyrinth, the house where the beast resides. The meander pattern was also used as a decorative border to frame the scene around the bottom of the cup. A mosaic discovered in Rome shows Theseus delivering the final blow to the Minotaur, while the other tributes wait at the entrance. Littered below the dead creature are the bodies of other children that were previous sacrifices. The mosaic itself almost takes on the idea of a labyrinth. The grout becomes the path of the labyrinth winding through the stones.
Evans also discovered a lot of pottery when he was excavating at Knossos; when digging in what he labeled the schoolroom area, he uncovered two large stone jars.34 On the lip of the container, the handles, and a band running around the top just below the neck is a meander pattern used as a decorative motif. This meander pattern has smooth curves that emulate the circular pattern of the labyrinth found on coins, as opposed to the squared-off pattern that was more typical to vases. In keeping with the theme of comparing the meander pattern to ritual use, one can conclude, because of the utilization of the pattern found on these jars, that they may have potentially been used in rituals performed at the palace complex (most likely being used for offerings to the gods).
Images of bulls were found everywhere within the palace complex at Knossos but were uncommon at other Minoan palaces. This evidence may indicate that the palace of Knossos was a ceremonial center. 35 This idea only helps to reinforce the idea that Knossos could have been the site of the labyrinth that housed the Minotaur. The bull was also considered an important image used as a decorative motif; discovered at the palace was a bull-headed rhyton (drinking vessel), which the Minoans used for ceremonial purposes. Also, a bull leaping fresco was discovered on one of the walls in the palace complex. This toreador fresco shows the participants in the action of completing the ritual sport. The participant would begin by getting a running start. Grabbing the bull by the horns, they would somersault over the back of the animal, only to land on their feet. Bull-leaping was considered a ritualistic sport. A successful performance would ensure that the participant passed their initiation rites and could enter into adulthood. The myth claims that Theseus used only his bare hands and his wrestling skills to kill the Minotaur. He leaped over the creature many times trying to tire him out, at last delivering the final blow to the Minotaur’s heart, causing his death.36 The idea of bull-leaping as a ritualistic sport is reminiscent of how Theseus overcame the Minotaur in their battle.
Recently discovered in Egypt was a Minoan bull-leaping scene, the Toreador fresco from Tell el-Dab’a . Art historian Richard Neer is not quite sure how the fresco came to be in Egypt. However, he has come up with a couple of hypotheses, including the possible marriage of a Minoan princess to an Egyptian ruler and the gift of the painting as a wedding present. Neer also suggested that a sovereign of Knossos might have sent some painters to Egypt as gifts.37 According to Cotterell, the Cretans were seen as tribute-bringers to the Egyptians,38 so the second hypothesis of Neer’s is probably a more accurate one. In any case, the connection between Crete and Egypt is one Evans suspected all along; since Crete is so close to Egypt, he figured they would have had some influence over each other. For instance, the fact that the meander pattern was used in the Toreador fresco connects with the idea of the labyrinth being used for ritualistic purposes. Indeed, the Egyptians were an extremely ritualistic group of people; some labyrinths were discovered in Egypt dating before the Palace of Knossos. At one point, as well, Evans believed that the engraving on the milk stones were hieroglyphics linking them to Egypt instead of Crete.39 Eventually, Evans figured out it was Linear A, an early form of Cretan writing, which still has not been deciphered but closely resembles a form of hieroglyphics.
Due to the discovery of the palace by Evans in the early 1900s, the Palace of Knossos began receiving much attention from the press. The myth of the Minotaur was revitalized, and people began using its image and the idea it represented in all sorts of creative outlets. The Minotaur even began showing up in art of the twentieth century, as Surrealists adopted the symbol of the Minotaur for one of their art bulletins called Minotaure. The monster became a source of inspiration in the modern world, and many artists began incorporating the bull into their works. Even Freud used the myth’s labyrinth and its horrific inhabitant as a paradigm to symbolize the conscious in crisis.40
The Palace of Knossos is certainly a magnificent find, and thanks to Sir Arthur Evans’s excavations we know how the Minoan culture lived and flourished so many years ago. By using the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur and comparing the tributes’ journey to a coming of age ritual, the story demonstrates the importance that the ancient Greeks placed on ritual. The children were sent away to be the food of the Minotaur or to wrestle with their demons. Upon walking the path, they would experience a symbolic death and re-birth. Their egos would know of the fear and anxiety the children felt as they traveled down an unknown road. Due to this increase in angst, the tributes would be forced to reexamine their psyche, and it in turn would be forced to change. After emerging successfully in their quest, they were considered adults and readmitted into society. By connecting a ritual act to the labyrinth, it is easy to see one of the ways in which the meander pattern was introduced to Western art. The meander pattern used as border decorations on wall paintings, as well as decorative features on jugs, link it to its ceremonial use or in the case of the Toreador frescoes, show the actual ritual. Becoming an adult is a transition that happens in all cultures. Before it happens, one goes through many tests like Theseus. Once one passes the tests and gains the knowledge necessary to move onto the next phase of life, only can they be fully recognized as adults.
Nicole Tessmer is a senior student of art history at St. Louis University. She hopes to attend New York University for master degree and eventually become a museum curator.
Nicole Tessmer, “Myth, Ritual, and the Labyrinth of King Minos,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 5, no.1 (Apr. 2015).
1 W.H. D. Rouse, Gods, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece (New York: The New American Library, Inc, 1957), 118.
2 Alexandre Farnoux, Knossos: Searching for the Legendary Palace of King Minos (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993), 30.
3 Ibid., 32.
4 Leonard Cottrell, The Bull of Minos: The Discoveries of Schliemann and Evans (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1953), 111-12.
5 Alexander MacGillivray, Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archeology of the Minoan Myth (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 212-13.
6 W.H.D. Rouse, “The Double Axe and the Labyrinth”. Journal of Hellenistic Studies (1901): 272.
7 Emily Townsend Vermeule,“ A Gold Minoan Double Axe,” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts (1959): 6.
8 Arthur Cotterell, The Minoan World, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979), 165.
9 Vermeule, Gold Minoan Double Axe, 6.
10 Mieke Prent, “Cult Activities at the Palace of Knossos from the End of the Bronze Age: Continuity and Change,” British School at Athens Studies (2004): 412.
11 Cotterell, Minoan World, 180.
12 Ibid., 108.
13 Rouse, Gods, 118.
14 Philippe Borgeaud, “The Open Entrance to the Closed Palace of the King: The Greek Labyrinth in Context,” University of Chicago Press (1974): 5
15 Rouse, Gods, 118.
16 Ibid., 121.
17 Ibid., 123.
18 Borgeaud, “Open Entrance Closed Palace,” 5.
20 Theodor Reik, Ritual Psycho-Analytic Studies (Great Britain: Hogarth Press, 1931), 99-100.
21 Ibid., 99.
22 Ego is defined as a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance.
23 Alex Holder, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, and the Psychoanalysis of Children and Adolescents (London: H. Karnac (Books) Ltd., 2005), 139.
24 Borgeaud, “Open Entrance Closed Palace,” 5.
25 Holder, Psychoanalysis, 142.
26 Maggie Riechers, “Fragments of Childhood: Growing Up in Ancient Greece,” Humanities (2003): 30.
28 Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960), 55.
29 Holder, Psychoanalysis, 140.
30 Cotterell, Minoan World, 101.
31 Borgeaud, “Open Entrance Closed Palace,” 7.
32 Cotterell, Minoan World, 173.
33 Farnoux, Knossos: Searching, 17.
34 Leonard R. Palmer, A New Guide to the Palace of Knossos (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969), 93.
35 Jeremy McInerney, “Bulls and the Bull-Leaping in the Minoan World”. Expedition, http://www.penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/pdfs/53-3/mcinerney.pdf , 12.
36 Rouse, Gods, 122-3.
37 Richard Neer, “The Bull-Leapers of Avaris”. Greek Art and Archaeology (2011): 35.
38 Cotterell, Minoan World, 119.
39 Ibid., 111.
40 Farnoux, Knossos, 125.