When reading and discussing Greek mythology, it is common to picture the grandiose tales of the gods: their relationships, their squabbles, and their battles. Humans also played an important role in many different myths; in fact, some, like King Minos, were half-god, or “demigod.” Despite demigods’ mortal nature, they possessed divine traits and responsibilities, and many of them became heroes or important figures setting up later stories.
The Origins and Historical Context of Minos
Minos was the king of Crete, a large island straddling the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. In real life, ancient Crete’s residents, today called the Minoans after their mythical ruler, led a wonderfully advanced civilization. They had robust architecture, beautiful visual art, abundant agriculture, and their own unique hieroglyphics to communicate. The name “Minos” is thought to be related to the Cretan word for “king,” and in many ways Minos as a character represented qualities from a variety of very real rulers and statesmen.
Not much is known about Minos’s childhood. Homer, in the Odyssey, writes that he was one of three sons of Europa, a princess of the Phonecians, and Zeus, the king of the gods. Asterion was king of Crete at the time and adopted the three boys, choosing Minos as his successor. The new king later banished his brothers from Crete.
Minos, the Good King
Within Crete, Minos was regarded as a fair and benevolent ruler with a truly divine right. Every nine years, he met with his father Zeus to discuss royal affairs and statecraft. Most of the laws and policies he enacted were inspired by those very meetings. In the Iliad and Odyssey, Homer opines that Crete had the finest fighting navy in the world thanks to his military wit, using his men to stop pirates and pillagers plaguing the Aegean Sea.
Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, was also a demigod; more specifically, she was the daughter of the sun god Helios. The couple had eight children together, including the talented athlete Androgeus, the labyrinth keeper Ariadne, the hunter Deucalion, the misfortuned Phaedra, and the oracle-turned-general Glaucus.
Minos, the Minotaur King
Outside of Crete, particularly in Athens, Minos was regarded as a tyrant and associated with a monster that bears his name: the fearsome Minotaur.
As Crete continued to grow and prosper, the water god Poseidon sent Minos a beautiful bull to sacrifice. The king admired it such that he chose not to slaughter it. As revenge, an insulted Poseidon forced Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, to give birth to the Minotaur. To protect the people and save his own face, Minos imprisoned the wise architect Daedalus and his son Icarus, forcing them to build a winding labyrinth to house the monster.
Later, Minos’s athlete son Androgeus was crowned champion of the Panathenaic Games, a lesser competition to the ancient Olympics. Before he could return to Crete, however, his rivals and a group of Athenian rioters killed Androgeus in a fit of jealousy. When Minos received the horrible news, he declared a war with Athens, a fight Crete won. As his victory prize, Minos forced the Athenian king, Aegeus, to send fourteen children into the Minotaur’s labyrinth every nine years.
After eighteen years and two rounds of sacrifices, Aegeus’s son Theseus volunteered to travel to Crete, enter the labyrinth, and kill the Minotaur once and for all. His girlfriend, who happened to be Minos’s daughter Ariadne, gave him thread to help him find his way through the maze.
Theseus won the duel, the scene of which is depicted in many notable works of ancient Minoan and Athenian art. However, he forgot to hang a white sail from his boat, signaling his victory. Believing his son had lost, Aegeus killed himself; therefore, when Theseus returned, he was crowned king of Athens.
The Death of Minos
After Daedalus and Icarus built the Minotaur’s labyrinth, Minos ordered their continued imprisonment to protect its secrets. Little did the king realize just how cunning the inventor and his son were to comply with their sentence. Daedalus built two sets of wax wings by which he and Icarus could fly from Crete to their new home in Sicily. (Icarus, of course, flew too close to the sun, melting his wings.)
Upon learning of the escape, Minos began his own determined manhunt, bringing with him a seashell puzzle which was so difficult only those in the wise and skilled company of Daedalus could solve it. In each dominion and polis the king visited, nobody he spoke to could manage the task, at least until he arrived in Sicily. The Sicilian king, Cocalus, not only solved the puzzle; he also confirmed Daedalus was in his service.
As Cocalus summoned the inventor to be returned to Crete, he invited Minos to bathe and make himself comfortable. It was in that fateful bathtub that Minos met his mortal end. Daedalus, together with Cocalus’s daughters, snuck into the room with boiling water, pouring it on the Cretan’s head and burning him to death.
In the underworld, Minos became one of the three judges of the dead. It was his vote that would decide whether someone would bask in the fields of Elysium or be condemned to eternal torment in the pits of Tartarus.
The Legacy of Minos
Outside Crete, Minos primarily appears in arts and literature. His most famous visual depiction appears in the Sistine Chapel, home of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment fresco. The painting echoes the first volume of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Minos is seen sentencing condemned souls to the appropriate circle of hell.
The philosopher Plato wrote a treatise named Minos to express his admiration for the Cretan king. He also used the “dialogue” to express his personal views on natural law, the idea that rules are based on how people naturally act. Today, legal scholars regard Minos as one of the key documents setting the direction of modern common and civil law.
In 1989, while husband and wife Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker were studying the Apollo group of asteroids, they found one particular space rock large enough to be considered a minor planet. The Smithsonian named the planet “6239 Minos” to pay homage to the legendary ruler. Indeed, it approaches Earth quite frequently, “judging” us on our planet.
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