The Myth of the Minotaur

George Syrimis

Mythology, which is to say our imagination, has envisioned him as beastly: a bull-headed creature, inexplicably violent, and human-devouring. His own crime is unknown and his punishment, retribution for the greed and unnatural conniving of others. God visits the sins of the father upon the children. The Minotaur was the offspring of a royal family, son of queen Pasiphae, wife of Minos, and of a divine bull, the same bull that Poseidon gave to Minos to sacrifice. The king, however, thought it right, and in his interests, to replace the bull with a clearly lesser specimen.

So, at the crossroads of a rampant political ambition and an unbridled erotic urge, once again female, the myth insists, the Minotaur served as sacrificial victim and as explanation for a greater political transition of power from Crete to Athens with its central hero the legendary Theseus. Complicit, however, in this sin is that other most illustrious of human achievements: art's pretension to substitute and represent nature.

Daedalus, the prototypical artist, did not invent only the labyrinth that imprisoned the Minotaur but also the wooden cow in which Pasiphae hid herself in order to copulate with the bull. The myth remains suspicious and reserved about the power and challenge of techne which has as its raison d'etre both the imitation of nature and its perversion. Art, however, redeemed the Minotaur in part, by naming this magnificent beast Asterios or Asterion, Starry, and dictated to vase painters to represent him with a body full of stars. And so the Minotaur remains, paradoxically and eternally, victim and victimizer, animal and human, subterranean and celestial: the very image of ourselves.

George Syrimis
Yale University

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