Published in First City Delhi July 2008
Right in the middle of the Mediterranean sea stands the island of Crete, once the cradle of a great civilization that predated the one in Greece. This was the Minoan civilization, named after its mythical king, Minos, whose stories are scattered across Greek mythology.
Minos was the son of Zeus, king of the gods, and Europa, a Phoenician princess, who Zeus abducted by taking the form of a bull and tricking her into climbing his back. He carried her over the sea and brought her to the island of Crete where he ravished her. She bore him three sons: Minos, Sarpendon and Rhadamanthus.
Instructed by their father, Minos grew up to be a brilliant law-maker. One of the curious laws Minos established to control population on the island was segregation of women and encouraging sexual relations between men. This institutionalized pederasty or man-boy love was later adopted by the Greeks.
It so happened that Minos and his brothers fell in love with the same young boy called Miletus, who unfortunately preferred only Sarpedon. In a fit of jealous rage, Minos drove his brother out of Crete.
Minos had a wife called Pasiphae who, tired of his infidelity, cast a spell on him that caused him to spew serpents and scorpions every time he ejaculated. To prevent the boys and girls he made love to from being killed by his lethal semen, Minos got his great court inventor, Daedalus, to create the world’s first condom made of goat’s bladder.
Minos had a son by Pasiphae called Glaucus who disappeared one day without a trace. Minos sent for Polyidus to find his son. Polydius was a wise man and a diviner. Searching for the boy, Polydius saw an owl driving bees away from a wine-cellar in Minos’ palace. Inside the wine-cellar was a cask of honey, with Glaucus dead inside. He had fallen in while chasing a mouse. Minos demanded Glaucus be brought back to life and locked Polydius up in the wine-cellar until he did so. Some time later, a snake appeared inside the cellar. Polydius killed it. Shortly thereafter, another snake followed the first, and after seeing its mate dead, turned back and returned with an herb which then brought the first snake back to life. With the same herb Polydius resurrected the child much to Minos’ delight. Minos refused to let Polydius leave Crete until he taught Glaucus the art of divination. Polydius did as ordered, but then, at the last second before leaving on his boat, he asked Glaucus to spit in his mouth (as they kissed?). Glaucus did so and forgot everything he had been taught, much to Minos’ irritation.
Minos went on to conquer all the cities that lined the shores of the Mediterranean. One city, Megara however, proved invincible – it was foretold that as long as its king, Nisus, had a lock of purple hair under his white hair, he would never be defeated in battle. Now the daughter of Nisus, Scylla, fell in love with Minos. Minos asked her to prove it by cutting the purple hair on her father’s head. She did and Minos managed to defeat Nisus and conquer Megara. Once this was done he spurned Scylla for disobeying her father. Heartbroken, she changed into a seabird, relentlessly pursued by her father, who became a sea eagle.
Later, to prove that his kingship over Crete was divinely ordained, Minos prayed to Poseidon and got the god of the sea to send him a giant white bull from the sea. Minos was supposed to sacrifice this impressive creature to Poseidon, but then, in cupidity, decided to sacrifice a more common bull instead. In rage, Poseidon cursed Minos’ wife with zoophilia: Pasiphae had an intense desire to mate with the bull. Realizing the bull had no interest in her, she got Daedalus to build her a hollow wooden cow, which looked very much like a live creature from the outside. The bull from the sea mated with the wooden cow, while Pasiphae crouched inside; she got pregnant as a result and gave birth to a horrible monster, the Minotaur (half man half bull).
This was the great shame of Minos. Since the creature was partly his son and the son of a god, he could not bring himself to kill it. In disgust and embarrassment, he got Daedalus to built a huge labyrinth under his city and put Minotaur in it. There it would live, hidden and trapped forever.
Minos was lord of a vast empire and he ordered his vassals to regularly send him young virgin boys and girls. They were forced into the labyrinth and were never seen again. Some said they became Minotaur’s companions; others said they became his food. None knew for once you went into the labyrinth, one never came out again.
Of the many youths who were sacrificed thus was one Theseus, from Athens. When he arrived on the shores of Crete, Minos’ daughter, Ariadne fell instantly in love with him. She gave him a sword and a ball of red fleece thread that she had spun. Theseus tied the thread round his waist and let the thread run behind him, thus tracing his way in so that he could find his way out. With the sword, he managed to kill Minotaur and come out a hero. He took Ariadne with him when he boarded the ship out of Crete to prevent Minos from following him. But once he managed to escape, he abandoned Ariadne on an island, for he did not love her.
Minos was afraid of losing his master inventor, Daedalus, so he had him imprisoned in a tower. But Daedalus managed to escape by inventing a pair of giant wings, using bird feather and bee wax, that enabled him to fly out of the tower, over the sea, to the island Sicily. Daedalus escaped along with his son Icarus for whom he had built a separate pair of wings. Icarus unfortunately flew too close to the sun; the wax melted and he tumbled down into the sea and drowned while Daedalus flew on.
Determined to find his inventor, Minos traveled around the Mediterranean shores, from city to city, threatening to destroy cities which failed to answer his riddle. He presented a spiral seashell and asked for it to be strung all the way through. In Sicily, the riddle was solved by getting an ant, with a string tied to its back, to walk through the shell. Minos knew instantly that’s where Daedalus was hidden for none but the master inventor could come up with such an ingenious solution. Minos demanded that the local king hand the inventor over. The local king, Cocalus, managed to convince Minos to take a bath first. Cocalus’ daughters and Daedalus then killed Minos by pouring boiling water on him.
Since Minos had been a great king and law maker on earth, Hades, god of the underworld, decided to make him one of the judges of the dead. It was he who decided what would be a man’s final resting place after death – if one’s life was heroic one was sent to cheerful Elysium; if one’s life was full of delinquency, one landed up in the horrific Tartarus; and if one lived an ordinary life one was sent to boring Asphodel. Such is the myth of Minos of Crete.