The Cretan Bull


The Minotaur, George Frederic Watts, 1885

by Natalie Lawrence

It all started on the shores of Crete, when the waves parted in a swirling, foaming mass and a bull emerged, crocus white and docile as a dove, with horns like polished olive branches. The sea god Poseidon had been feeling a little underappreciated by the Cretans, so he had decided to drop king Minos of Crete a pretty heavy hint by sending him an animal worthy of sacrifice to the god of the oceans. The bull strode majestically up to the royal palace and when the king set eyes on it, he could not bring himself to kill such a wonderful beast. Surely Poseidon would be satisfied with the finest bull from his own herds? Admittedly, the old black bull was getting slightly past it, but in his prime he had been one of Minos’s prize posessions.

Minos ordered the white bull to be penned in its own enclosure and for him to be fed on milk and sweetened grass. He did not notice that his wife, Pasiphaë, was making eyes at his new acquisition. Poseidon had clocked on the fact that Minos was playing the old switcheroo trick with his sacrifice. So, to teach the king a lesson he had got Aphrodite to set her little troublemaker, Eros, to work with his infatuation-inducing bow and arrows. Pasiphaë now had a look on her face similar to that when the handsome young king had burst into her apartments and swept her off her feet to be queen of Crete all those years ago. The bull played it cool, he didn’t usually have to chase females. They came to him.

The great black bull from Minos’ herds was brought forth and sacrificed, Minos didn’t want this delayed, in case Poseidon started getting impatient. As the knife cut its throat the bull’s flanks shone like a sheet of black velvet, the dark blood ran across it and onto the temple floor like a frothing crimson sea. It was a solemn moment. All the rites and rituals done with, it was time for a great feast of prime steak for all. Poseidon had not seemed very hungry. All the gods were really interested in was the gesture; they were generally too full on nectar and ambrosia most of the time to bother with bloody haunches. So the matter seemed to be settled and the beautiful white bull seemed content to be the only male in a herd of thousands of cows.

Pasiphaë could not forget the bull though. At night she lay dreaming of the glossy white flanks, rippling in the sunlight as the beast walked. She pictured the horns that spanned a shield’s breadth and could have pierced armour. Minos did not once suspect the reason for his wife’s sudden new pet name for him. He also did not notice how Pasiphaë would languish at the gate of the bull’s enclosure, watching longingly as he chewed nonchalantly on his succulent fodder. The way she gasped quietly when she saw him mount one of the eager black cows, who could hardly get enough of him. That year the herd nearly tripled in size. Minos himself was the son of Europa and Zeus in bull-form, who had abducted the beautiful girl and swum across the Aegean Sea to Crete with her on his back. A penchant for animals was obviously a fatal flaw of the women in his family.

Eventually Pasiphaë went to Daedalus, the chief craftsman, and had him build her a hollow wooden model of a cow. She had it placed in the centre of the enclosed field, and shut herself inside, to all intents and purposes a sprightly young heifer ready to mate. She even made a few provocative mooing sounds in the hope that might entice the wondrous white bull closer. She could hardly contain her excitement.

The bull took his time. He knew by now that he was something special, and having had the run of over a thousand cows for several weeks, Poseidon’s bull was in no particular hurry to investigate the new arrival. He eventually sauntered closer, tossing his head excessively at the gathering flies to display his great muscular neck and shining horns. But the cow did not go weak at the knees as he had expected. She stood stock still, apparently far more interested in the farmhouse in the distance than the sizeable hunk of beefcake approaching her. This piqued his interest. Like many males, he couldn’t resist a challenge. He walked closer purposefully, expecting her to skip coquettishly away or at least turn her head but she did neither. This was more than he could stand. The bull bellowed in frustration, the sound rolled over the olive groves like the battle cries of an approaching army. Then the cow made a strange sound, somewhat like a ‘come hither’ moo but also like a pigeon. This was where his manners ended. A lesser bull might have found the mixed signals intimidating, but he galloped towards her, snorting with indignance. Without any further posturing he got down to business.

The sex was surprising. Pasiphaë had failed to consider the logistics of inter-special relations and she found the reality quite a shock. When he had dismounted and wandered off to have a post-coital cud-chew, she extricated herself from the wooden bull and, with a no small difficulty, walked back to the palace. She was overwhelmed with regret at giving in to her desires: it had been the madness of lust, nothing more. She became pregnant, however, and was terrified that the secret of her illicit encounter would be known. The offspring of such a union could hardly pass for that of Minos. Without the hooves it might have done at a pinch, but as it was, no one was going to be fooled.

In due course Pasiphaë gave birth, with pains that rent her nearly in two. And the child was not cute by any standards: a small hairy boy with a calf’s head. His only redeeming feature was that he had his mother’s wide blue eyes. She could not bear to see him. He reminded her of the guilt and disgust she felt at herself, as well as the longing she’d had for that virile white animal. No baby that eats whole chickens by ripping them apart with its bare teeth is endearing, even in a mother’s eyes. He became known as the Minotaur, the bull of Minos. The king would not hear of keeping the boy, though he could not kill his wife’s son and the son of Poseidon’s bull. So, Minos had the craftsman Daedalus build a great labyrinth below the palace, a deep and twisting maze from which no man could escape. He plunged the bull-boy into the darkness, hiding his shame as deep as was humanly possible.

The Minotaur might have grown up to become a hideous and brutish cannibal that fed on the blood of young and unfortunate innocents. He might have stayed in the black depths of the maze for the rest of his life, awaiting the arrival of some intrepid hero looking for a spot of glory. That would have been how the story went.

Mother-love prevailed, though. Pasiphaëfound herself touring the palace basement more than was strictly necessary. She would pass the door to the Labyrinth several times a day with a look of longing on her face. After several months, she finally realised that there was a sliding panel in the door to look through and from then on she spent all her time peering through, hoping for a glimpse of her son. He was growing to become a strapping young man-beast. He had the beauty of his father, the bright shining horns, hide as white as milk, taller than any man and muscled like a Titan. He also had his mother’s stunning blue eyes, which could have melted a gaggle of teenage girls at twenty paces. He could not talk, but he could understand speech and would come striding to the door whenever she called. He would allow allow her to stroke his velvety nose and coo at him lovingly, staring at her deeply with his cornflower-blue eyes. She even grew to find his carnivorous eating habits endearing. As he became stronger and more beautiful, Pasiphaë took to strutting about the palace like a proud mother hen. She could not forget the fact that he was a prisoner in the maze, though, kept always in the dark. Quite apart from that, Pasiphaë didn’t even want to think about how unbalanced his diet was.

Minos was not too pleased about his wife visiting the twisted beast in the bowels of the palace. He began to feel neglected and couldn’t see why the Minotaur was so important to her. Every time he passed the white bull’s enclosure, he began to feel edgy. If the pale animal looked at him, Minos felt it was with supreme contempt. This was more than his pride could bear. He, the king of Crete, son of Zeus, felt threatened by a walking T-bone steak.

Minos was right to feel threatened, though: Pasiphaë could not forget her furry frolic. She began to see flaws in her husband that she could not believe she had never noticed before. His hair was greying and lustreless; he drank far too much wine; and it had been a very long time since he had visited the gymnasium. There was also the awkward fact that, having gone Longhorn, there was no going back for Pasiphaë. She despaired, though: the bull only knew her as another cow in the field, another heifer in the herd. Would he ever want her as a woman? Or would there forever be a wooden bovine model lacking in the relationship?

Pasiphaë began to spend all of her time by the gate to the Bull’s enclosure and by the door of her son’s maze. Minos became increasingly edgy about the situation, but decided not to say anything because he wasn’t quite sure that any of the possible outcomes of upsetting a clearly unbalanced woman would be one he’d be pleased with. It would pass, it had to.

The bull on the other hand, began to notice the beautiful young woman who watched him. Every time he went near her, the wind brought a familiar smell; it reminded him of that young cow, the one who had not fallen head over heels for him. The herdsmen had gotten used to feeling like they were but lowly vassals seeking to please his splendorous and over-awing magnanimity. They were a little surprised when they sae him sauntering about the fields with an even greater air of self-satisfaction. They were very dismayed when he lost his interest in the cows, though. That could mean Hades to pay. Every time Pasiphaë went near the bull, the heifers shot her dirty looks. It was quite an experience, being death-stared by hundreds of jealous bovines at once.

She didn’t care though. Pasiphaë would walk with the bull in the dusty summer sun, her arms entwined around his neck, hanging garlands of pale cornflowers from his horns, lying against him in the golden hay fields, dreaming of what might be. Minos didn’t admit to the inquisitive palace visitors that the reason for his wife’s ‘enthusiasm for agriculture’ was that she was having a clandestine affair with his prime bull. Maybe he would have fillet steak for dinner.

Thus, matters might have continued – Pasiphaë and her white-flanked lover, Minos turning a blind eye, the bull-man deep in the maze – until a young Athenean hero came to wreak bloody revenge, or the heifers staged a coup. That could have been what happened.

What did happen was, one day, Pasiphaë came down to the Labyrinth from gambolling in the fields with the white bull. Her sun-flushed eyes took a while to adjust to the damp gloom. Like a thunderbolt from Zeus, she felt acutely the difference between the magnificent free beast and her boy in the cold dark of the maze. Pasiphaë could not stand to see her son trapped any longer. She flung herself at the door and wrestled with the vast bronze bolts that kept the door shut and entered the Labyrinth, calling for her bull-boy. The Minotaur came jogging out of the blackness and stopped when he saw his mother standing before the open door. The white sheen of his fur glowed in the torch light, his blue eyes glinting like cut sapphires. He had grown over the past few months, and stood at seven foot of sinewy muscle. His godly heritage had caused him to sprout extraordinarily quickly, aided by his high-protein diet of chicken carcasses. , There was no time for indulging in sentimentalities, though. Pasiphaë sprinted up through the palace, calling her son after her.

They ran out into the sunlight, the Minotaur stunned for a moment as his eyes felt the sun for the first time. They ran to the gate of the herd’s enclosure. Pasiphaë called to her bull-lover, who galloped towards her, head held high and snorting vigorously. He did not usually have much to do with the calf-rearing end of matters, except for the occasional disciplining of unruly offspring, but the strange beast with Pasiphaë was familiar to him. The blue eyes transfixed him, just as hers did. The smell was familiar. The Minotaur knew his father, whom his mother had told him so much about. He wrenched open the gate and they all ran together – out of the palace grounds, out in the sunshine, out onto the seashore where the waves crashed and billowed to the piercing cries of gulls. Poseidon’s Bull, his lover and their child, away from gates and mazes and palaces, free as the sea-god’s swirling mass of water beside them.


About the Author:

Natalie Lawrence has a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge on the natural histories of exotic monsters. She  is a freelance writer, teacher and speaker, and is currently working on a book about monsters and the imagination.