In Greek mythology, King Minos of Crete was best known for building the Labyrinth—a complicated network of passages—to imprison the monstrous Minotaur. Europa, the king's mother, had been carried away from her home in Tyre by Zeus*, disguised as a bull. He brought her to the island of Crete, where she gave birth to three sons. Europa later married Asterius, the king of Crete, who adopted her sons.
When Asterius died, a dispute arose over which of the sons should win the throne. Minos claimed the right to be king on the grounds that he could convince the gods to answer any prayer that he offered. He prayed to Poseidon* to send him a bull that he would sacrifice to the god, and a beautiful white bull emerged from the sea.
Minos became the new king. However, he decided that the bull was too magnificent to sacrifice and offered another bull instead. Angry with Minos for failing to keep his word, Poseidon caused the king's wife, Pasiphae, to fall in love with the white bull. She spoke of her passion to Daedalus, a master craftsman, and Daedalus created a lifelike model of a cow in which the queen could conceal herself. The bull mounted the cow, and in time Pasiphae gave birth to the Minotaur, a monstrous creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. Minos then ordered Daedalus to build the Labyrinth in which to hide and imprison the Minotaur.
Minos's son was killed in Athens, and the king called on the gods to curse the city with famine and earthquake. To lift the curse, Minos required Athens to send him seven boys and seven girls each year to be fed to the Minotaur. One year this group included a youth named Theseus, with whom Minos's daughter Ariadne fell in love. With the assistance of Daedalus, she made it possible for Theseus to kill the Minotaur and escape with her. To punish Daedalus for helping Theseus, Minos imprisoned him and his son Icarus. However, the master craftsman created two sets of wings, which he and his son used to escape and fly out of Crete. Daedalus managed to reach Sicily, but Icarus fell from the sky to his death.
Minos began a search for Daedalus. He sent a challenge to the kings of neighboring lands, asking for someone who could pass a thread through a spiral seashell, knowing that only Daedalus could accomplish this feat. When King Cocalus of Sicily sent back a properly threaded shell, Minos went to Sicily to seize Daedalus.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Cocalus greeted the Cretan king and offered him a bath. However, Daedalus had made the pipes that led to the bath, and while Minos was bathing, Daedalus burned him to death with boiling water.
See also Ariadne; Daedalus; Minotaur; Theseus.
Palace of Minos a complex of buildings excavated and reconstructed by Arthur Evans at Knossos, which yielded local coins portraying the labyrinth as the city's symbol and a Linear B religious tablet which refers to the ‘lady of the labyrinth’.