In Greek myth, the Minotaur was a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man who was imprisoned in a dark underground labyrinth at Knossos on the Aegean island of Crete.
The Labyrinth was an ingenious maze commissioned by King Minos and designed by the architect Daedalus.
In order to escape the maze after killing the Minotaur, Theseus needed a ball of thread, given to him by the princess Ariadne. Or at least that is the most commonly accepted story – digging deeper into the myth reveals a multitude of contradictory versions. Myths are continually reworked and retold, and that of the Labyrinth is no exception.
Knossos, on the island of Crete, is mentioned in the earliest work of Greek literature, Homer’s Iliad, which was composed some time before 700 BCE. Intriguingly, Homer tells us that Daedalus built a dancing floor for Ariadne at Knossos, but doesn’t mention the Labyrinth.
Herodotus, the earliest Greek historian, describes an impressive building called a labyrinth, but locates it in Egypt, at a city called Crocodilopolis.
Only later did authors locate the Labyrinth at Knossos.
Writing several hundred years later, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder lists a number of different labyrinths, suggesting that the Egyptian building had inspired Daedalus to build the one in Crete. But of this Cretan Labyrinth, Pliny says, nothing remained.
At the same time as these different accounts of the Labyrinth were being written down, artists were producing a variety of depictions of the myth. Greek vases frequently show Theseus killing the Minotaur with a sword.
The coins of Knossos were decorated with a symbol of the city: a labyrinth design which sometimes had a Minotaur at the centre. This design, unlike most literary descriptions, has a single path into the centre. It appears more like a bird’s eye view of a building, and one in which it is impossible to get lost.
Knossos was an important Cretan city in the Greek and Roman period. When the Roman conquest of Crete began in 69 BCE, its citizens resisted. As a result the rival city of Gortyn, 60 km south of Knossos, became the Roman provincial capital. New civic buildings were required, and the stone for these was quarried out of a nearby hillside. This left a network of underground passages going deep underground.
From this period onwards, authors start to confuse Knossos and Gortyn, and the location of the Labyrinth started to shift. The Roman poet, Catullus for instance, refers to the home of King Minos as ‘Gortynian’. A later Byzantine author, Ioannes Malalas, described the labyrinth as a cave near Gortyn.