The Minotaur – Fiend or Friend?

Pan and the Minotaur are both mythological figures with celestial horns and human/animalian bodies. While Pan can roam freely, the Minotaur is imprisoned in a deep labyrinth. Why is it that the merest skim of google images shows him even now as either a ravening beast, or as a marginal figure inspiring pathos? Even Michael Ayrton’s engravings, which portray a sinisterly sexual creature, show Ariadne and the Minotaur standing either side of a wall like Pyramus and Thisbe, listening for each other.

c4th vase showing Pasiphae and the baby Minotaur

The ancient Greeks expressed the same fascinated ambivalence, speculating about the mechanics of conception and breastfeeding, painting him as a noble victim on their vases.

Pan is easy to assimilate and domesticate as a mischievous, lustful force of nature.  The Minotaur carries a much weightier nexus of symbolism. One can hardly move for the bullishness that pervades the myth. The bull was sacred to Zeus, to Dionysus, and to Poseidon. It was the most prestigious animal as a sacrificial victim, the animal sacred to Crete while Crete’s legendary king, Minos, was son of Zeus and Europa. Zeus seduced Europa by appearing as a bull, and Minos’s wife Pasiphae is made to fall in love with a bull by Poseidon to punish Minos for keeping a prize bull for himself instead of sacrificing it to the god. Minos’ own son is killed by a bull. 

The themes of cuckoldry, adultery, hubris and the transgression of divine order, the abnormal child, are ample reasons for Daedalus, artist and architect, to be asked to create an elaborate prison.  Yet the story continues to puzzle with Theseus performing a classic hero-wins-the-girl move by killing the Minotaur and finding his way out of the labyrinth using Ariadne’s thread.

Why must the Minotaur die? What is the importance of the thread? 

Minotaur and Moth contemporary sculpture by Beth Carter

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break
It was while I was reading this book by Stephen Sherrill that another interpretation occurred to me. In this delightful novel the Minotaur has lost his desire for human blood and lives in a trailer park, working as a hand in a steak bar, and focused on keeping his ancient car going. It’s an elegy on the loss of mythical powers in our lives, on the difficulties of being a marginal figure, on love found in unlikely places. The Minotaur is meticulous in his grooming and while showering takes especial care to moisturise the place where bull joins man. It struck me that the idea of integration is another key to the myth. 

The minotaur is that part of the process of individuation in which different parts of the psyche struggle for resolution, for the chance to grow away from parents, a process that is perhaps never satisfactorily completed. When this remains unacknowledged, he is experienced as a monster who consumes the naivety of youth (he eats the 7 youths and maidens annually) and threatens to overwhelm the self; alternatively, if recognised, he becomes an object of tenderness and empathy for that eternally imperfect part of ourselves. Theseus must symbolically free himself from this developmental impasse in order to weave himself into the life of another – Ariadne’s thread. The brutality of the Minotaur’s death is in common with the harshness of most initiation practices.   

The Minotaur’s name is Asterius: of the stars; his significance is eternal and cosmic. 


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