Thursday, March 21, 2013

Myth of the Minotaur - Political + Religious Warnings

Everyone has a favorite story. Everyone has a favorite fictional character. Within genres, people gravitate towards one story or series or the other. Reading plenty of Greek and Roman mythology tales, my favorite classical figure is Odysseus. My favorite story or myth itself is the myth of the Minotaur. I have written about it before here. There are multiple ways to look at the myth, which is part of the success the myth had in staying power as well as being common knowledge for many classically educated people. While I previously looked at the myth as a message on interpersonal relationships, today let us look at the myth's larger religious and political messages as well as how the story fits into the early Athenian era after the Bronze Age collapse (Greek Dark Ages). Written after the Bronze Age collapse, Theseus, King Minos and the Minotaur conflict serve as a warning to Athenian society to respect the gods and focus on succession of political power or else face collapse as the prior power did.

The hero-founder tale of Theseus involves the founding of Athens, which rose after the fall of the Bronze Age powers like Crete. King Minos was the Cretan king (Minos actually means king) who pushed for power, was rejected by the people, but prays to the gods for power and claimed the gods would support him. Poseidon helps him out, sends a bull as a sign of approval and for Minos to sacrifice, Minos defies the god by not sacrificing the bull, and this leads to Minos' wife copulating with the bull, producing the Minotaur. The Minotaur is also the 'son' born in the purple, as in he was born while the father reigned as king not before his rule and power. Minos' perfectly healthy and powerful normal son goes to compete in games, wins plenty of honors, but the jealous Athenians kill him. Minos then displays his power by surrounding Athens, taking sacrifices of young boys and girls every 7 or 9 years as tribute. A few cycles later, Theseus goes to Crete, slays the Minotaur and settles Athens as the new political force in the Aegean.

This tale was formulated after the Bronze Age collapse. The Minoan civilizations, which wrote in Linear B that stopped being used entirely, crashed. The new Greek city-states were rising after that fact. The story of Theseus-Minos-the Minotaur is a great way to express to the citizens of Athens that they have a just and righteous start to their culture and city, and it serves as a warning. Minos was rejected by the people. The myth makers are actually imposing their Greek democratic behavior (whether early Athenian aristocratic democracy or extended suffrage democracy) onto the old Minoan culture, which did not operate that way. Minos then asks for the gods' help. The gods come through, which reinforces that they exist, confer legitimacy and will work for the right people. Minos defies the gods. He turns his back on them by not sacrificing the bull. That is his fatal error. Minos considers himself outside of the gods control after he has reached power. That is the warning at the heart of the tale: do no defy the gods even if you reign gloriously from a massive palace with reach across the seas. The gods transcend your petty view of political power on earth.

Looking at Minos' life, one can argue that the cause of the civilization's downfall is linked to his treatment of Poseidon's gift and what followed that rejection of the gods. Minos defies Poseidon, which is followed by his true, worthy heir (Androgeos) being slain by a rival political state and his wife bearing an unworthy heir, the Minotaur. Minos succession is divided by his son, from the 'prays to the gods' era, and the Minotaur who was born in the purple, from his 'defy the gods' era. The Minotaur is a creature of a god's curse, which infects the queen. The matrilineal side is the crazy side that commits bestiality and raises the monster as her own. This monstrous heir could be a symbol of the men whom rule after a culture's peak that are driven by passion fulfillment first (half animal) instead of the full rational approach of a law giving, god fearing leader. Theseus is a god honoring figure of royal stock who chooses to end the tyranny of Minos and the sacrifices. Theseus is the righteous, religious political figure that slays the beast.

The key is that this myth was created and spread after the fall of Crete's ruling culture. The Theseus piece of the Minotaur myth is the glorification of the founding of Athens along with a warning about what came prior to Athens. A founding myth could have had Theseus performing any heroic acts. The myth makers deliberately chose to include the action on the big island of Crete and not directly in Attica. Theseus' deeds other than slaying the Minotaur are heroic enough. The inclusion of King Minos and the Minotaur served as a specific message that would have been felt very sharply by the people of Athens crawling out of the Bronze Age collapse. Look at what the Cretans did. They had it all, they turned on their gods, their leaders became men who pillaged and demanded tribute (not trade), they are in ruins now, do not follow their path. The Athenians did not listen.


odinslounge said...

Maybe the Greeks should try sacrificing a few Athenians today to try and get that old engine started again.

Couldn't hurt.

westunderground said...

Perhaps another interpretation is that Minos underestimated the power of the gods, and his wife recognized this would lead to his downfall, prompting her to seek security elsewhere, making her give birth to the bull.