Many of the best-known Greek myths have Cretan roots. At the zenith of the Minoan culture (2000-1450 BC), Crete was the dominant force in the East Mediterranean – perhaps maintaining itself by control of the seas and so diffusing abroad the first high culture of note onto European soils.
This same Minoan cycle of myths contains hints of the later Greek pantheon: the Olympians. The oldest story concerns the birth of Zeus, Father of Gods and men.
By this story, Kronos (son of Ouranos – Sky – and Gaia – Earth) married his sister Rhea: they brought many children into the world. But Kronos, scared by a prophecy that he would lose his throne to a child of his, swallowed all the newborns – in an attempt to avoid Fate.
This myth of Zeus and Europa carries historical resonance – reflecting Crete’s connections with the East. It explains, in its way, how Crete with its prehistoric ties to Asia Minor, Syria, the Levant (Phoenicia) and Egypt also acquired a European dimension.
After Zeus grew up, he fell in love with Europa, the daughter of the King of Phoenicia. Maddened by his desire, Zeus wanted to ensnare her affections by guile. Making himself into a handsome white bull, he went and lay down on the sea-line on the beach where Europa was playing. Trusting the bull, Europa came and sat on his back... at which point the bull sank at once into the waves .. and swam over to Crete.
Minos could well be the honorific title given toe the king of Knossos, and eventually Crete – rather as Pharaoh is in Egypt. Minos symbolizes strong leadership, divinely-inspired law and order, adjudication in this world and the next; his rule indicates the cultural and political suzerainty of a goodly part of the Greek and Aegean worlds (south, central and east Greece, the Aegean islands and southwest Asia Minor).
After the death of Asterios, Minos wished to succeed him on the throne. Meeting objections from the Cretans, he asked the god Poseidon, his uncle... to help him out by sending the locals a sign that he Minos had the support of the Gods. Poseidon sent a beautiful white bull from the sea – expecting Minos to sacrifice the creature after ascending to the throne as a way of acknowledging the help.
This story revolves around a toll imposed as a punishment by Minos on Athens, by which annually 14 young men and women became prey to the Minotaur: it recollects and reflects both the Minoan ‘sport’ of bull-leaping and the influence Knossos wielded in southern Greece. It is perhaps the most famous of all the myths associated with ancient Crete.
The story begins when a son of Minos, Androgeos, went to Athens to compete in a competition there. A fine athlete, he captured first place in all the events – arousing the jealousy of King Aegeus of Athens. He ordered his men to ambush Androgeos on the road to Megara – where he was slain.
Year in, year out, the tribute was paid. Up to the day when Theseus, son of Aegeus, volunteered to take the place of one of the seven youths in the belief that he would find a way to free the Athenians from this humiliating punishment.
If the Labyrinth symbolizes the Palace of Knossos and all its architectural complexity, then its creator – Daedalus, the wise engineer and craftsman – stands for the amazing technical feats the Minoans achieved.
Fleeing the island, Theseus took Ariadne with him. Once Minos discovered the role that Daedalus had played in their escape, he gave orders for him and his son Icarus to be thrown into the Labyrinth. Father and son were thus condemned to be buried alive. Their only safety lay in flight from Crete too – a difficult matter: even if one got out of Labyrinth, the seas were all under Minos’ control.