History & Archaeology, Myths, Portfolio, Travel

The call of Ariadne

Doré's Minotaur

Everybody, I believe, treasures at least one tale that speaks to them, and it doesn’t matter if it comes from the other side of the world. My father told me the myth of the Minotaur when I was too young to understand the difference between mythology and fairy tales. On the island of Crete a wise man named Daedalus built a labyrinth to house a half human, half bull monster who had to be appeased with regular human sacrifices, and whom everybody called the Minotaur. Athenian prince Theseus wanted to confront the monster, but no man, not even wise Daedalus, knew how to get to the heart of the maze, where the Minotaur lived. However, my father continued, there was a smart young woman named Ariadne who did. She gave the prince a ball of thread so that he could unwind it to mark his way and follow it back to the entrance. Helped by her cunning, Theseus killed the Minotaur.

The story had a monster, a labyrinth, a smart heroine and a great deed, but what I found most exciting was that, unlike in other favourites  of mine (Puss in Boots or Snow White), the place where the adventure occured could be seen on a map. Naturally, I decided I had to visit the island of Crete, although this didn’t happen until nearly three decades later. The turquoise sea and the promise of a feast of olives and kalitsounia were appealing, but if I’m honest, I was just answering the call of the myth, of the monster trapped in the labyrinth and the mysterious Ariadne, wise as a witch.

Knossos: is it the Labyrinth? 

It doesn’t matter that Knossos was likely a political centre, and not the home of a mythical monster: the legend seems tangible when you set foot in the ruins of the palace, just three miles to the south of Heraklion, the busy capital of the island. Knossos is the second most visited ancient site in Greece, a vast, positively labyrinthine structure, which explains why it’s generally identified with Daedalus’ creation. Our bus stops on an avenue of tourist shops crammed with straw hats and minotaur fridge magnets. We’ve been awake since 6 to avoid the crowds and it pays off: it’s just after 8 am now, the morning light is exquisite and the ruins are silent.

The palace became a cultural icon thanks to Sir Arthur Evans, whose bronze bust, brooding into the sky, welcomes the visitors by the main entrance. He excavated Knossos from 1900 and was responsible for the controversial restorations that became its trademark: the bright rusty-red columns and the vibrant, stylised frescoes depicting dancing princes and princesses, ecstatic bull-leapers and sinuous dolphins. With his archaeological work in Knossos, Evans unveiled a sophisticated and hedonistic civilisation that fascinated the masses much like Schlieman’s Troy (1) or Howard Carter’s Tutankhamon. He called them the Minoans after Karl Hoeck’s initial use of the word, in honour of King Minos, the legendary ruler of Crete. Like Schlieman’s discovery of Troy, the excavation in Knossos had a clear euhemeristic appeal: with it, Knossos emerged from the darkness where myths dwell, suggesting that there was, perhaps, a historical basis for the myth of the Minotaur.

Traces of the Minotaur

Overlooking the scenery at the East Propyleia in the palace there’s a pair of stylised bull horns, awe-inspiring in size, almost like the Minotaur’s. They’re a modern reproduction of a protective symbol that Evans called the horns of consecration, common in Minoan Crete, usually placed on the roofs of buildings of religious significance, tombs and shrines. The ubiquituous symmetric double axe is also part of the iconography of Minoan bull sacrifice. Its name, the labrys, is probably the root of the word “labyrinth”, the palace of the double axe, that referred to Knossos. But perhaps the most suggestive traces of this ancient civilisation are the taurokatharpsia or bull-leaping frescoes, representing bold rituals with stunts and acrobatics. Reproductions can be seen on the walls of Knossos, though we have to wait until the following day to see the originals at the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion.

“Bulls have been considered sacred animals since Antiquity”

When we think of bull-worshipping civilisations the Minoans might be first to spring to mind,  but bulls have been considered sacred animals since Antiquity. Aurochs and bisons were already depicted in Paleolithic caves. What makes bull symbology fascinating is that it shares both lunar and solar qualities: the Egyptian bull Apis or the Summerian Gugalanna were lunar deities, yet the Vedic god Sûrya was solar and the Mythraic Mysteries of the Roman Empire are a celebration of a sun-god killing a bull.

But let’s get back to the Cretan monster. Since Homer, poetic tradition has considered the Labyrinth the home to Asterion, or Minos’s bull, the Minotaur. He was the monstrous descendant of the Cretan bull, a beautiful snow-coloured bull that Poseidon gave to king Minos as a gift. Minos refused to sacrifice it to the god, so Poseidon punished the king’s hubris by cursing his wife Pasiphae to fall madly in love with the white bull -so much so that Pasiphae desperately asked for the help of one of the wisest men in Greece: the mythical inventor Daedalus. He built a hollow wooden cow for her to hide and copulate with the animal. Thus the unlikely affair was consummated, and the Minotaur, “the twin form of bull and man” (2), as described by Ovid, was born. He was nursed by Pasiphae until his ferocity became impossible to tame. Then the king had to seek advice from the oracle of Delphi. The pythia told him to have Daedalus build a maze to house his bastardly offspring. However, the Minotaur would have to be appeased with regular human sacrifices: every seven to nine years, seven young men and seven maidens would sail from Athens to feed the monster. One of these chosen seven was Theseus, the prince of Athens, who would eventually kill Asterion.

Human sacrifices

Perhaps because we want to believe that there’s some truth in myths, it is tempting to search for a historical explanation to them. J. G. Frazer certainly attempted so in his seminal (and deliciously Victorian) The Golden Bough: A study in comparative religion (1890). He pointed out that the Minotaur sacrifice, held every eight years, coincided with the “normal length of the king’s rein”. After each eight-year period, the king would retire to the oracular cave on Mount Ida to receive guidance from Zeus (3). Frazer suggested that the monster could have been a red hot brazen bull in a sacred ceremony that involved roasting humans alive to renew the strength of the king or the sun. The brutal image is reminiscent of that of the Canaanean god Moloch, which jumped out of the pages of the Old Testament to influence iconic silent films Cabiria and Metropolis.

Of course, Frazer’s suggestion wasn’t based on archaeological evidence, since Knossos hadn’t even been excavated yet. But could there be a fragment of truth to that part of the story? More recently, three archaeological discoveries have suggested that the sophisticated bull-worshipping civilisation had a darker side.

In 1967 archaeologist Peter Warren found fragments of a human skull in the early Minoan site of Fournou Korifi. The lack of other bones ruled out the possibility of a burial, so he worked with the hypothesis that the skull had been deliberately placed there, which would indicate ancestor worship or human sacrifice. Over a decade later, in 1979, the polemic discovery of several skeletons in Anemospilia, a Minoan site near Heraklion, raised many questions. The scene that the archaeologists found remained frozen in time, buried by the effects of a violent earthquake. The skeleton of a young man found on an altar-like construction appeared to have died of blood loss, probably after his carotid artery was severed, and there was evidence that at least his legs had probably been bound. Next to him there was a large blade, and among the débris, a jar that contained bull’s blood. The third discovery was unearthed again by Peter Warren in Knossos in 1980. About 200 bones of children between 10 and 15  years old were found in the North House. At least 20 of these bones showed butchering marks, perhaps made with a knife with a thin obsidian blade, which again pointed to ritual cannibalism. It’s difficult to reconcile this darker side with the elegant vitality and the intelligence that the frescoes exude.

The mistress of the Labyrinth

Ariadne remains the most elusive figure on my visit to Knossos. In the myth she is the daughter of King Minos and Pasiphae, and therefore the Minotaur’s half-sister, a detail often overlooked but one that gives her more complexity. In the fascinating (although snubbed by academics) The White Goddess, Robert Graves translated Homer’s verses from the Iliad as “Daedalas in Cnossos once contrived/ a dancing floor for fair-haired Ariadne”. Scholar Károly Kerényi translated it as Ariadne of the “beautiful braids of hair”, an epithet that Homer used more often to refer to goddesses. Both Graves and Kerényi theorised that Ariadne, arihagne, the utterly pure, was therefore a goddess; Kerényi identified her as the “mistress of the Labyrinth” and noted that, in an inscription on a Linear B tablet, the libation offered to her  was equal to the amount of honey offered to all the other gods. For him, this extraordinary distinction could only be explained if she was a Great Goddess.

Kerényi also noted that Plutarch (c. AD 46- AD 120)  refered to a cult to Ariadne in the island of Naxos in his Vita of Theseus. Curiously, according to him, the Naxians recognised two Ariadnes. The celestial one was married to Dyonisus, whereas the earthly one helped Theseus, eloped with him, and was abandoned by him shortly afterwards. She retired then to Naxos, where she died. Plutarch wrote that there were two celebrations for these two Ariadnes, though they were very different in spirit: the one for the goddess was joyful; the one for the mortal, gloomy and sorrowful.

The Snake Goddess

Searching for references to Ariadne in Knossos I look at Minoan art, where anonymous women appear prominently. I see no threads and no labyrinths, but there’s a bull: two fair-skinned female acrobats stand next to it in the taurokatharpsia fresco (4). I also find out that the iconic “Ladies in Blue” fresco is a reconstruction based on very small fragments, visible because they appear slightly offset from the main composition. Despite the critics (Evelyn Waugh thought it looked like a cover of Vogue), it’s a beautiful piece of art.

The most intriguing Minoan female figures can’t be found in the palace, but in the museum of archaeology of Heraklion. They’re two faience figurines (5) that have become the Rosetta Stone of the collection, as the crowd gathering around them suggests. They were discovered by Evans in 1903, during his fourth campaign at Knossos. The first one was a large fragment of a female figure that sported bare breasts and an apron over a long flounced skirt. In her right hand she held a slithering snake. Evans referred to it as a “priestess or votary” and thought it part of a shrine. The figure was promptly reconstructed with another snake in her left hand and a head with expressive features, probably inspired by that of the bigger, somewhat rougher statuette that was found next to it.

The small figurine is widely known as the Snake Goddess, and Evans referred to the larger one as a Mother Goddess. They share the same glass case, and the same enigmatic stances, proudly showing their breasts. Evans suggested a link to the cult of Wadjet, the Egyptian cobra goddess who offered protection to women at childbirth and who had an oracle in the city of Per-Wadjet, still active in times of Herodotus. However, they could also be linked to Kebechet, the daughter of Anubis, depicted as a woman with the head of a snake. This goddess assisted her father in embalming during the process of mummification, and was therefore connected to the renewal of life. Snakes aren’t just a symbol of fertility and rebirth, they are also the guardians of the underworld, and, in this chthonic form, they’re part of an oracular tradition.

There’s a third female figurine in the museum that intrigues me, with her stylised lines, sphinx-like smile and eyes that appear closed. Her hands are raised in a silent greeting, and she’s wearing the pods of opium poppies around her head. This Poppy Goddess dates from the 13th century BCE and was found in a sanctuary in Gazi, suggesting that opium could have been used as an entheogen in Minoan religious rituals. According to Kerényi, there could have been a connection between these and the Eleusinian mysteries, the religious ceremony held around the autumnal equinox in Eleusis. These so-called Greater Mysteries, ta Mysteria, were cults to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, and her daughter Persephone, abducted by Hades. Little is known about the celebration, but Kerényi quotes 1st century BCE historian Diodorus of Sicily, who writes: “Elsewhere such rites are communicated in secret, but in Krete, in Knossos, it had been the custom since time immemorial to speak of these ceremonies quite openly to all”.

Earlier on I referred to my journey as a pilgrimage. Visiting the place where a myth may have originated can be a numinous experience, particularly when the myth has a personal meaning, as it has in my case. Reflecting upon it, I realise it’s because it holds the first reference to women’s wisdom that I can recall. The mysterious Ariadne doesn’t reveal herself, or perhaps she does, but under the appearance of a goddess. The physical traces of a bull-worshiping cult and the references to a Great Goddess feel like a glimpse to the great mystery, a passage to an otherworld populated by archetypes and mythical creatures. The myth is serving its function, at least according to Mircea Eliade: in answering its call, as I walk among the ruins, I’m dettaching myself from the present, returning to a mythical age and coming closer to the divine.

First published in Fortean Times no. 325


(1) Schlieman had  actually wanted to excavated the hill where Knossos sits, suspecting there’d be a complex underneath.

(2) The Minotaur is usually depicted with the head of bull on the body of a man.

(3) “Knossos, where Minos reigned who every nine years had a conference with Zeus himself”. (Homer, The Odyssey, XIX, 172-178 )

(4) In Minoan frescoes, women are portrayed with pale skin, as opposed to men, whose skin appears brown-red in colour, a convention borrowed from Egyptian art.

(5) Faience was used in Ancient Egypt and symbolised the renewal of life.


Diodorus of Sicily: Bibliotheca historica

Frazer, J.G: The golden bough: a study in comparative religion (1890)

Graves, Robert: The White Goddess (Faber and Faber, 1999)

Homer: The Iliad and The Oddyssey

Kerényi, Carl: Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life (Princeton University Press, 1996) and Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter (Princeton University Press, 1991)

Plutarch: Parallel Lives.